WSU students study concussions at Winter Dew Tour

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Graphic by Brett Ferrin

While Winter Dew Tour competitors were hitting the slopes in the annual Ski and Snowboard Competition last winter in Colorado, Weber State University nursing and athletic training students were conducting the beginning of a four-year study researching concussions.

“As a student, this was an incredible opportunity,” said WSU student Tiffany Vlahos. “Rarely do you get the chance to work with athletes at such a high level of performance.”

At the Dew Tour, students had large sample sizes of athletes at risk for concussions. Students were able to use a variety of research techniques, such as helmet sensors and video monitoring.

But the most beneficial technique came from a simple blood draw.

“If there was a specific biomarker in the participant’s blood, it would show up when there was a concussion,” Vlahos said. “(Through) a blood draw, (we) were able to determine if the individual had had a concussion.”

Using a combination of these techniques, students were able to establish baseline values on the participating athletes.

“Throughout the week, when an athlete with a head injury came to the medical hut, we were able to compare their baseline tests with their post-injury blood work and test performance,” Vlahos said.

The baseline values were then used to monitor and determine possible memory loss and brain decay.

“We (did) this in hopes of finding a quick but thorough method of recognizing brain injuries and allowing us to safely return an athlete to play,” Vlahos said.

Vlahos said concussions are often the result of a serious blow to the head, making them more prevalent in athletes who are involved in high-impact sports such as skiing and snowboarding. This made the Dew Tour a perfect place for Wildcats to conduct research and gain real-life experience out in the field.

“It was encouraging to see so many eager to participate in (the research),” Vlahos said. “It showed that they were invested in their health and wellbeing and wanted these advancements in care just as much as we did.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1.7 million concussions occur every year. These traumatic brain injuries cause a substantial amount of permanent disabilities and can even lead to death.

Although events such as the Dew Tour often raise concussion awareness, many still take concussions lightly.

“I played sports all through high school. Girls would get concussions (and) sit out for a game or two, and then they would be good to go,” said athletic training major Maile Madsen. “I never really understood how serious concussions were until I took my first sports medicine class.”

According to Vlahos, concussions can be hard to diagnose, unlike broken bones and many other traumatic injuries, because there isn’t a specific test to diagnose a concussion. Some individuals may not even experience symptoms.

Becca Smith wasn’t sure she even had a concussion until she was diagnosed in the hospital.

“I had no idea,” she said. “(All) I had was a huge headache and immense light sensitivity for a while. I (had to) rest until I was positive that I felt well enough.”

Vlahos said any research from this project would be beneficial in helping to prevent, diagnose and treat traumatic brain injuries such as concussions. Madsen said she hopes this research might even bring attention to the seriousness of having a head injury.

“People don’t realize that if it’s not taken seriously, you can die from a concussion,” she said. “It shouldn’t be taken lightly.”